KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Seven astronauts fled the shuttle Atlantis and scrambled into escape baskets Thursday in a mock disaster drill designed to help improve safety in the wake of the Challenger explosion.
"The simulation was very realistic and well orchestrated by the people in charge," launch director Gene Thomas said. "We learned an awful lot about where improvements can be made, especially in our means of communicating."
As the astronauts, all rookies, boarded Atlantis, a test conductor declared a "major emergency" because of a fuel leak in an engine that is part of the shuttle's orbital maneuvering system.
Fire and rescue workers rushed to the pad from their station a mile away and within six minutes were assisting people on the pad.
The fuel supposedly involved was hydrazine, a volatile chemical that can harm a person who inhales it or comes in contact with it. "It is a very hazardous fuel," Thomas said.
One astronaut, two members of the spacecraft close-out crew and a quality control inspector were tagged by observers as "injured" or "incapacitated." After oxygen masks were applied, they were carried across a platform to slide-wire baskets at the cabin level of the pad, 147 feet high.
All four entered the baskets, but did not ride them down 1,200-foot cables to the ground. Some officials feel the swift ride and abrupt halt in nets at the bottom is risky and should be attempted only in an emergency.
Thomas said the system is being improved and volunteers will test-ride the baskets next spring.
The baskets were sent down with ballast and the astronauts and the others took an elevator to the ground and reentered the baskets. Rescue personnel helped or carried them out and hurried them away in three tank-like armored vehicles to a heliport where they would receive medical treatment.
Stand-ins for the "injured" were taken by ambulance to a hospital in Titusville or by helicopter to hospitals in Orlando and Gainesville.
Thomas said that in addition to some communications problems and the breakdown of one armored vehicle, one of the helicopters used developed a fuel leak.
The exercise concluded seven weeks of launch pad tests.